Alamance-Burlington school board members heard from a procession of 15 speakers during their latest meeting Monday night, with many demanding to know what will be done to ensure ABSS schools remain free of mold and urging the board to fill the school board vacancy created by the April 2023 resignation of Patsy Simpson.
Monday night’s meeting had a record standing-room-only turnout, whose numbers outstripped the school board’s meeting room beyond its capacity and overflowed into an adjoining hallway and stairwell, prompting ABSS to divert some attendees to an overflow area that had been set up in the “professional library” downstairs, where they were able to watch the meeting on TV via live stream.
Of the 15 speakers who addressed school board members Monday night, 10 spoke about the ongoing mold crisis in ABSS schools.
Six out of seven speakers who urged the board to fill the vacant seat urged the appointment of Seneca Rogers to serve out the remainder of Simpson’s term, which expires in November 2024.
One other speaker, Avery Wagoner, announced his intention to submit a letter of interest for the vacancy. Both Rogers and Wagoner ran for one of three open seats on the school board in November 2022, placing fourth and fifth, respectively.
School board members have set October 9 as the deadline to submit an interest letter for the vacant seat (see related story, this edition).
Dr. Jon Dooley, vice president of student life and an education professor at Elon University, asked pointedly why superintendent Dr. Dain Butler hadn’t been present for a meeting with Alamance County’s commissioners on Friday, September 1, when the board asked the county to allocate millions in funding for mold remediation at the 33 schools where mold had been confirmed.
Dooley noted that Butler had been quoted in a news story as saying, “That, frankly, is nobody’s business.”
“As a public official,” Dooley countered Monday night, “Is absolutely is our business.”
Dooley said he had read accounts of school buildings being “closed up” all summer, which created an ideal atmosphere for mold to develop and grow, adding, “When will someone be truthful with us?
“In the midst of all of this, we find graduation rates have declined a second year in a row, and the number of D and F schools [based on annual school performance grades] is up to almost half,” Dooley told the board. “I agree with the board chair: we are in crisis mode.” But he said the crisis isn’t just limited to facilities; it’s also leadership.
“Board members, on behalf of a frustrated community, I ask, what are you going to do, and when are you going to do it?” Dooley asked.
Two recent ABSS graduates said during public comments Monday night that the mold problem had been common knowledge at least four years ago, when they were students at Cummings High School.
Leslie Arevalo, who said she graduated from Cummings in 2019, told the board, “I remember even then having the same mold issue. I am allergic to just about everything native to North Carolina; I also have asthma. Twice in high school, I was removed from the dance room in Cummings, in the basement – I always had really bad reactions. I recall being taken out of that class a few times because people had to come in and check for black mold – at least that was the rumor then.”
Marlene Perez said she graduated from Cummings in 2022 and could remember there being “limited circulation” throughout the buildings. “We all worried about mold then, so I’m not sure why it has continued until now.”
Meanwhile, numerous speakers took the majority of their time at the podium to urge the six sitting school board members to fill the vacant seat.
Avery Wagoner said, “I am here to announce my intention to complete the application for the vacant board seat…Folks, I lost an election; I did not lose my passion to serve.”
Bryant Crisp, who is a Gibsonville alderman, said that by not taking action, the board has held the vacant seat “hostage,” which he called “irresponsible at the very least.”
“If you look at qualifications – who consistently shows up everywhere – all roads lead to that man right there,” Crisp said, pointing to Rogers, who was seated in the audience but didn’t speak during public comments Monday night. “Are we under the impression that some magical candidate will fall from the sky? That’s not going to happen. I would trust this man with my children’s lives. There’s no one on this board I can say that about.”
Sandy Lindley, who described herself as a retired educator of 35 years, with most of her career in ABSS, said, “I would strongly like to see this position filled before Thanksgiving; if that is not possible, I’d like to see the vacancy filled before Christmas break. Our minority populations have been
without representation for far too long; I also feel strongly this position needs to be filled with a minority candidate who is held in high regard in the community and meets all the qualifications that have been established previously.”
Beverly Orwig, who also said she is retired from ABSS, thanked school board chairman Sandy Ellington-Graves and board member Donna Westbrooks “for continuing to push forward the issue of filling the seat that has now been vacant several months.
“I implore you to conclude this process quickly, and I humbly request that you choose Mr. Seneca Rogers,” Orwig continued. “[He] has demonstrated time and again his dedication to the students and staff of this county and school system. I know that you are aware of all the studies that demonstrate, when we see people who look like us in leadership positions, learning and working relationships are nurtured and grow.”
Several other speakers addressed other topics unrelated to the ongoing mold crisis and vacant board seat. Among them was James Allegreto, who said he works with a committee established by N.C. Supreme Court chief justice Paul Newby in 2021 to examine Adverse Early Childhood Experiences (AECEs) and their impacts later in life. Allegretto invited school board members to attend an upcoming “Youth Resilience Summit” at N.C. State University.
Peter Morcombe of Graham, a longtime school choice advocate who helped found three of the county’s charter schools in the late 1990s and early 2000s, raised concerns about the school performance grades that ABSS received earlier this month. “Would you please come up with some new ideas?” he asked. “Somebody pointed out that almost half of the schools are [D or F] now. I look to you folks to come up with some new ideas.”
Ed Priola, who announced earlier this year his candidacy for one of the three county commissioner seats that will be up for grabs in 2024, urged the board Monday night to work to “hold accountable the people who caused the current mold crisis.”
“It’s not enough to blame the prior board and administrators who ‘did nothing,’” Priola said. “The people who gambled with the health of our children and teachers should resign if elected or be fired if employed.”